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A ghost word is a word that is published in a dictionary or similarly authoritative reference work having rarely, if ever, been used in practice. This is generally a result of an error, such as a misinterpretation, mispronunciation, misreading, or typographical or linguistic confusion.
Once authoritatively published, a ghost word may occasionally be widely copied and take a long time to be erased from usage (if it ever does) (e.g. "morse", as described below) especially if the work is published using a free license which encourages its promulgation (e.g. "hsigo").
Origin of the term
- Of all the work which the Society has at various times undertaken, none has ever had so much interest for us, collectively, as the New English Dictionary. Dr Murray, as you will remember, wrote on one occasion a most able article, in order to justify himself in omitting from the Dictionary the word abacot, defined by Webster as "the cap of state formerly used by English kings, wrought into the figure of two crowns". It was rightly and wisely rejected by our Editor on the ground that there is no such word, the alleged form being due to a complete mistake ... due to the blunders of printers or scribes, or to the perfervid imaginations of ignorant or blundering editors. ...
- I propose, therefore, to bring under your notice a few more words of the abacot type; words which will come under our Editor's notice in course of time, and which I have little doubt that he will reject. As it is convenient to have a short name for words of this character, I shall take leave to call them "ghost-words." ... I only allow the title of ghost-words to such words, or rather forms, as have no meaning whatever.
- ...I can adduce at least two that are somewhat startling. The first is kime... The original ... appeared in the Edinburgh Review for 1808. " The Hindoos... have some very savage customs... Some swing on hooks, some run kimes through their hands..."
It turned out that "kimes" was a misprint for "knives", but the word gained currency for some time. A more drastic example followed, also cited in Skeat's address:
- A similar instance occurs in a misprint of a passage of one of Scott's novels, but here there is the further amusing circumstance that the etymology of the false word was settled to the satisfaction of some of the readers. In the majority of editions of The Monastery, we read: ... dost thou so soon morse thoughts of slaughter?
- This word is nothing but a misprint of nurse; but in Notes and Queries two independent correspondents accounted for the word morse etymologically. One explained it as to prime, as when one primes a musket, from O. Fr. amorce, powder for the touchhole (Cotgrave), and the other by to bite (Lat. mordere), hence "to indulge in biting, stinging or gnawing thoughts of slaughter". The latter writes: "That the word as a misprint should have been printed and read by millions for fifty years without being challenged and altered exceeds the bounds of probability." Yet when the original manuscript of Sir Walter Scott was consulted, it was found that the word was there plainly written nurse.
One example of such an edition of "The Monastery" was published by the Edinburgh University Press in 1820.
In his address, Skeat exhibited about 100 more specimens that he had collected.
Other examples include:
- The supposed Homeric Greek word στήτη = "woman", which arose thus: In Iliad Book 1 line 6 is the phrase διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε = "two [= Achilles and Agamemnon ] stood apart making strife". However someone unfamiliar with dual number verb inflections read it as διά στήτην ἐρίσαντε = "two making strife because of a στήτη", and he guessed that στήτη meant the woman Briseis who was the subject of the strife.
- The placename Sarum, which arose by misunderstanding of the abbreviation Sar~ used in a medieval manuscript to mean some early form such as "Sarisberie" (= Salisbury).
- As an example of an editing mistake, "dord" was defined as a noun meaning density (mass per unit volume). When the second edition of Webster's New International Dictionary was being prepared, an index card that read "D or d" with reference to the word "density" was incorrectly misfiled as a word instead of an abbreviation. The entry existed in more than one printing from 1934 to 1947.
- Hsigo, an apparently erroneous output from optical character recognition software for "hsiao", a creature from Chinese mythology. The typographical error appeared in several limited-audience publications but spread around the World Wide Web after the creation of a Wikipedia article about the term (which has since been corrected), due to its numerous mirrors and forks.
Many neologisms, including those that eventually develop into established usages, are of obscure origin, and some might well have originated as ghost words through illiteracy, such as the term "okay". However, establishing the true origin often is not possible, partly for lack of documentation, and sometimes through obstructive efforts on the part of pranksters. The most popular etymology of the word pumpernickel bread - that Napoleon described it as "C'est pain pour Nicole!", being only fit for his horse - is thought to be a deliberate hoax. "Quiz" also has been associated with apparently deliberate false etymology. All these words and many more have remained in common usage, but they may well have been ghost words in origin.
A recent, incorrect use of the term "ghost word" refers to coining a new word implied logically from a real word, often etymologically incorrectly. The correct term for such a derivation is back-formation, a word that has been established since the late 19th century. An example is "beforemath" which is derived from "aftermath". In principle nothing prevents a back-formation from becoming a something like a ghost word, but it is not easy to find examples, and as a rule it would clash with Skeat's precise definition, which requires that the word forms have "no meaning".
Troublesome ghost words
Ghost words and similar errors and creations, certainly including back-formations, usually are at least troublesome to philologists as a source of neologisms and linguistic confusion. More philosophically, one might as well regard them as a source of linguistic challenge and entertainment; probably most of them disappear harmlessly, and those that enter common use might well gain general acceptance simply because they express something comfortably, or otherwise meet a need. The ultimate origins of most words in any language are in essence no more respectable.
- Skeat, Walter William; Presidential address on 'Ghost-Words' in: 'Transactions of the Philological Society, 1885-7, pages 343-374'; Published for the society by Trübner & Co., Ludgate Hill, London, 1887. May be downloaded at: http://archive.org/details/transact188500philuoft
- Wheatley, Henry Benjamin; Literary Blunders; A Chapter in the “History of Human Error”; Publisher: Elliot Stock, London 1893
- Scott, Walter. The Monastery. Chapter 10, page 156. Published by Edinburgh University Press. 1820. May be downloaded from: http://archive.org/details/monasteryaroman00scotgoog
- "Ghost Word" with Emily Brewster, part of the "Ask the Editor" series at Merriam-Webster.com
- "dord". Dictionary.com, LLC. Retrieved February 21, 2012. "In sorting out and separating abbreviations from words in preparing the dictionary's second edition, a card marked "D or d" meaning "density" somehow migrated from the "abbreviations" stack to the "words" stack."